Critic's Notebook: Garry Marshall Was an Entertainer, Not an Artist — and That's OK

garry marshall - Getty - H 2016
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garry marshall - Getty - H 2016

Garry Marshall knew he was not a critical darling, and he didn't mind — his interest was in providing laughter and tears.

Garry Marshall, who died on Tuesday at the age of 81, didn’t always get the respect of critics, but his many TV shows and movies earned the love of audiences over the course of half a century — and that’s not an achievement to be sneezed at. Giving pleasure is certainly one of the purposes of art, perhaps as important as providing fodder for erudite interpretations. Marshall himself would have freely admitted that he was not quite in the same business as auteurs who took pride in creating dense texts for the cognoscenti to dissect. He never earned an Oscar nomination or a major critics’ award, but he knew how to elicit laughter and tears.

I might add that Marshall’s compulsion to entertain was not only evident in the works he created for the big and small screen. He loved to regale live audiences whenever he could seize the opportunity. I discovered this firsthand when I presented a screening of The Flamingo Kid as part of a UCLA Extension course that I was offering in 1984. Over the years I had him return for screenings of several more of his movies, including Beaches, Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries. Some directors are reluctant to hawk their wares before the hoi polloi. Marshall, by contrast, was champing at the bit. He often had his reps contact me to see if I had an opening to screen his latest film. I held some of these screenings at the Wadsworth Theatre, a 1,000-seat venue in West Los Angeles. Marshall was in his element holding court after these screenings. He made it clear that he did not want to be seated onstage in the usual confined interview format. He preferred holding a mic and roaming up and down the stage like a Borscht Belt comedian. He joked with the crowd, shared anecdotes about the stars of his movies as well as his sister, Penny Marshall, and other members of the Hollywood set. After our screening of The Flamingo Kid, he pointed out that Matt Dillon wanted to bring Method intensity to his role as the young protégé of a slick huckster. Marshall had to explain to his star that sometimes you had to throw motivation aside in order to nail the gag.

Marshall learned plenty about nailing jokes in his years writing and overseeing such phenomenally successful sitcoms as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. When he entered the movie realm, he quickly showed that he was too restless to stay within one genre. He made a very successful tearjerker when he teamed Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in Beaches, but then he really hit the jackpot with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Here he was able to build on his experience in comedy while also finding the emotion in the tale of a zillionaire who is seduced by a call girl. Marshall didn’t discover Roberts, but he certainly put her on the map with this variation on one of the oldest stories in the book, that of the hooker with the heart of gold.

I was more taken with some of Marshall’s lesser known films, including The Flamingo Kid, which teamed Dillon with veteran Richard Crenna to disarming effect. Tom Hanks had one of his best early roles in Nothing in Common (1986), where he played a crass advertising executive battling with his overbearing father, played by Jackie Gleason in his final screen appearance. Although the movie inevitably reached a sentimental conclusion, some of the best scenes were the early ones in which Hanks did not shy away from catching the darker side of his character. Obviously Marshall gave him the confidence to dare to be unlikable. Another underrated Marshall opus is Frankie and Johnny (1991), adapted by Terrence McNally from his two-character play. Here Marshall drew winning rapport from co-stars Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, and he expanded the play effectively. Some of the anomie may have been lost in translation, but the added bursts of humor were welcome.

Throughout his career Marshall demonstrated his love of actors. He gave Anne Hathaway her first big break in The Princess Diaries, also bringing Julie Andrews back to the screen to play her grandmother. Marshall was comfortable working with huge stars, but he didn’t neglect gifted character actors like Hector Elizondo, who had a role in every single one of the director’s movies. Marshall assembled an impressive ensemble cast in Valentine’s Day (2010), including Elizondo, Hathaway and Roberts, along with Shirley MacLaine, Kathy Bates, Topher Grace, Jennifer Garner, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Alba, Patrick Dempsey, Jamie Foxx, and Queen Latifah. As Leonard Maltin noted, the film “may set some record for the most attractive people ever packed into one movie.” It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining ensemble comedy, and it was fun to see Cooper take a chance playing a gay character when his star was rising. (The follow-up ensemble films directed by Marshall, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, didn’t match the lightweight charm of this first outing.)

When he spoke after my screenings, Marshall was always self-deprecating and candid. He knew that he wasn’t a critics’ darling, and he didn’t make great claims for the movies that had some of his detractors foaming at the mouth. Instead he seemed content to provoke laughter, and he provided a lot of that on the screen (in his rare but always welcome acting assignments), behind the camera, and in front of a live audience, where he thrived. Pure entertainment isn’t so readily available that we can afford to overlook Garry Marshall.